Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Some plants of the north

On my recent NettieBay expeditions in northern Michigan's Presque Isle County, we saw many interesting plants. The ones that follow are of particular interest if you do most of your flora-chasing in Ohio or points south. For the most part, these are plants of cool northern climates, and barely nip into Ohio, or don't at all in one case.

This fen, hard on the shores of Lake Huron, is a botanical eden. Serious plant-seekers will go ape here. Cold flowing sheet water spreads out over a massive bed of limestone, creating strongly alkaline soils and frigid root zone temperatures. Only the specially adapted survive, and some of these specialists are among our most interesting plants. See all of those purplish clumps? They're pitcher-plants, Sarracenia purpurea, a truly carnivorous plant.

This little beauty was my personal favorite, and early bloomer that it is, the flowers had already passed on many plants. But many plants still looked fine, and their pale purple blossoms added little jolts of color to the fen. We also saw small rafts growing in gravelley swales in the protected lee of Huron's beaches.

It's bird's-eye primrose, Primula mistassinica. I shut my camera's aperture down as much as I could in the shot above, to get enough depth of field to show the plant's basal rosette of leaves. There are no cauline, or stem, leaves, and the flowers are held perhaps six inches above the ground.

The flowers of bird's-eye primrose are striking upon inspection, with their lemon-yellow "eye". Note the bifid, or cleft, petals, as if some elf had snipped a wedge from the tip of each. The curious scientific epithet mistassinica stems from Lake Mistassini, where the plant was apparently first found. This lake lies in Quebec's north country, and is the largest natural lake that is wholly within the province. It must be a spectacular place, and the name alone makes me want to visit it someday.

A real showstopper, this one, and this individual looked like a miniature shrub. It's rose twisted-stalk, Streptopus lanceolatus, and if it reminds you a bit of a Solomon's-seal you'd be ranking high in botanical acuity.

Rose twisted-stalk is a lily and closely related to Solomon's-seals, as evidenced by the flowers that dangle beneath the leaves, held by threadlike pendant pedicels. This is a nearly magical plant, and it would seem to be one that would captivate the gardening crowd, but I'm not sure it has been much captured and domesticated.

I find everything about this species of interest, and think that it is particularly photogenic. One could easily lose a lot of time trying to capture rose twisted-stalk's various nuances and angles. You'll not find many opportunities for that in Ohio: it is endangered here and only known from a very few small populations in the extreme northeastern corner of the state.

One day, we ventured out onto a quaking bog mat surrounding a glacial kettle lake. I don't know if you have ever explored such a habitat, but when doing so caution is called for. Kettle bogs such as the one above began life (in this case, not even 12,000 years ago) when an enormous block of ice calved from the face of the retreating glacier. With a giant plop, the icy block drilled down into the soft muck left in the glacier's wake; sort of like dropping an ice cube into a chocolate Wendy's Frosty.

Plants nearly instantly began the process of invading the barren, frigid water body, and now, some 10,000 years later, we have a classic kettle bog. The remaining open water in the middle of the kettle is ringed by mats of Sphagnum moss laced together with a fascinating diversity of acid-loving bog plants. The bog mat, where we will go to see our next featured plant, is like a thin spongy veneer of plant life, often overlaying water. Break through, and you could be in for some real problems. Jump up and down on a good bog mat, and it'll set the substrate to rippling and quaking like a waterbed.

Eventually the lake will completely fill with plant matter, its ultimate fate to be conversion into woodland.

While traipsing about the quaking bog mat, we were understandably quite interested to come across these curious pea-like trifoliate leaves.

That's because those leaves were attached to these - the indescribably stunning flowers of bogbean, or buckbean, Menyanthes trifoliata. The showy little flowers are crystalline-white, and heavily bearded with interesting tassel-like fringes. This species was once placed in the gentian family, a group renowned for beauty, but apparently we must now accept bogbean's placement into its own family, the Menyanthaceae. Oh well, something this extraordinary probably deserves such recognition.

There were a great many of these bogbeans festooning the bog's mat, and is often the case, as it was here, one must work hard to place themselves in its company. In our case, it meant threading through a damp white cedar swamp, ducking and weaving between low-hanging branches all the while taking pains to avoid miry wallows. Once on the mat, even more care must be taken to prevent a misstep that might send one slipping through the peat.

It was well worth the effort it took to see all of these plants, though, and of course in the process we saw a great many birds and other fauna and flora of the north.


Buckeyeherper said...

Any herps on your travels up that way? That is a very interesting part of the state. I spent some time almost that far up a couple weeks ago, and hope to venture up that way again soon.

Jim McCormac said...

Not too many - the cool weather saw to that. We did run across a few Blanding's turtles, which are always nice to see. Twelve species of herps in all... And just one or a few of most.